Divisive Cultures: 3 Cases of Employee Vs. Customer

We all know of companies that resist change, even though the handwriting is on the wall and survival is clearly at stake. Some do so intelligently because they are not persuaded that the means selected are the smartest way to go or are the most flexible. But a number are perversely intractable, past-fixated, myopic, with heads buried in the proverbial sand. We lament the lack of leadership that has allowed such a culture to take hold and become entrenched.

But of late, there are a number of signs of cultures gone awry dictated from the top, sanctioned by policy, steered willfully and selfishly, positioning employees at odds with customers, even sometimes on a collision course. In the process, the company leadership has unknowingly found itself exposed and perceived negatively by the public-- and even by an unexpected alliance between those employees and customers.

Although there are many examples, the three below nicely embody a range which suggests how widespread the problem is.

The Airline Industry

The first is the airline industry, which has made immense profits by charging for checked bags. Now they have added charging for seats. When you initially book online and turn to seat selection you will find many choice seats unavailable, except for a fee. That now includes the bulkhead—the rows of seats right after first class— usually reserved for the disabled or families traveling with small children. These seats are close by when getting onboard and have more leg room. But now they are designated as "preferred" and carry a seat charge. Online, they are simply labeled as unavailable.

Imagine the unhappy conversation that has, in fact, often occurred between a disabled person in a wheel chair or walking with a cane and a flight attendant or service agent. Our traveler has been assigned row 45 at the back of the plane. As he walks by the bulkhead, he finds young or middle-aged able-bodied travelers occupying those seats. Many are business travelers whose fares are paid for by their organizations and are generally savvier about the new policy; it’s no big deal to shell out the difference.

The airline agent tries to explain to the unhappy disabled traveler the new arrangements, which makes him even angrier. But when she suggests he can get a seat closer by paying $25, he boils over. Here, then, is the classic situation: the employee is caught in the crossfire between a justifiably irate customer, whom she is supposed to serve on the one hand, and company policy on the other— caught in the not unfamiliar but crafted opposition between people and systems.

What does she do? She gives him one of the upfront seats without charge. In effect, she tries to humanize an inhuman system. In the process, she grants herself some self-respect so that she can continue to do her job with a clear conscience and sense of purpose, by softening and adjusting the arrangements to even the odds.

Meanwhile, the beneficiary of her flexibility is not a happy camper. A veil has been lifted and he sees, for the first time, pure and unadulterated greed. He looks with jaundiced eyes on the smiling face of the airline CEO as he appears on the screen to welcome them and sees instead a crafty scrooge piling up millions in his counting house. In short, a voracious culture has been unmasked. He shudders and wants to avoid any further contact with them like the plague.

The Restaurant Chain Business

A more mundane (but no less indicting) example occurs in the restaurant chain business. A favorite item has been eliminated from the menu. In part you came because of that item. The diner asks the server why. Flustered, he mumbles something about corporate policy and leaves to get drinks. Meanwhile the manager comes over, "Your server mentioned that you had some questions which perhaps I could answer."

There then begins a generally unsatisfactory exchange: "Who made the decision? Why? Were the ingredients harder to come by or more expensive? Did it take more time to prepare?" Although the manager has been separately and extensively briefed by corporate to respond to and deflect such misgivings, other than his winning smile, he fails to relieve your concerns.

Actually, one might feel sorry for his untenable position of being left out to dry in the wind. It’s embarrassing—after all, he is a manager—a server would have shrugged it off. I, personally, do not envy his job. But what it does expose is a top down corporate culture that does not back up its people, making unilateral and often enigmatic decisions, and does not value employee input or engagement. Although it may not have impacted the bottom line, it may have longer term effect on manager turnover and motivation for their upward mobility to the faceless corporate faèade.

The Investment Industry

The third example is from the investment industry and its recent efforts to regain customers and restore its image. After a rapid and surprising mea culpa for past lapses, two correctives are proposed: The first offers a new relationship of partnership—that magic word— between broker and investor. Now customer goals will drive portfolio advancement. Second, all those complicated economic terms and tools of stock market analysis will be eliminated from conversations between broker and client and replaced by more customer-friendly reassuring language and visuals.

Has it made a difference? Not much; besides, it has backfired in some cases. Many investors are not happy with the idea of a proposed partnership. "Does that mean if an investment goes south I am partly to blame and I can’t yell at you?" Now, the unhappy task of explaining why customer goals were not in the driver’s seat in the first place not only is dropped in the brokers’ laps, but also returns the conversation to previous misguidance.

More seriously, it leaves unaddressed customer confusion about goal choice or some goals working at cross purposes. Figuring that out was always part of the important and critical task of the broker functioning as investment coach and therapist. And making it into a shared partnership with the blind leading the blind just does not cut it.

Cleaning up the language is a mixed bag. Just when customers were beginning to understand tracking, it is dropped. And what takes its place is so ordinary and vapid that expertise seems irrelevant or no longer the singular monopoly or distinction of our investment counselor.

All indications are that the new conversations between brokers and customers will not be particularly new or productive. It’s sadly clear that investment companies have introduced new or questionable obstacles between employees and customers, which brokers regrettably have to work around in order to convince customers that they have what it takes for ROI. In the meantime, the industry, confessions notwithstanding, has proven again to be self-serving and even self-absolving.

Do you really want your credibility and image to be viewed as voracious, unilateral and self-serving? Are you upset by the sudden exposure of leadership not as responsible power, but what it can get away with—choosing the fast and dirty fix of the short term over the respected durability of the long term? Are those your values? Is that your culture?

Robert Frost rightly warned, "Before I build a wall I would like to know/What I am walling out and what I am walling in." Similarly, before a policy is built and promulgated, ask what it clears up and what it confuses. Question whether the gains obscure hidden losses. Inquire whether it buckles the structure and its implementation puts employees at odds with their customers. And finally, speculate how the culture will be perceived both internally and externally.